Mark Lanegan might be my favourite male singer of all time, with a gravelly cigarettes-and-alcohol baritone that sounds so richly lived-in and is deceptively controlled and flexible. And he looks like his voice too – like a person who’s lived through some dark and troubled times. His pipes have become more brittle with years and these days Lanegan sounds less like he’s about to jump out of the speakers and punch you in the face, and his lower register on Gargoyle is almost Leonard Cohen-esque. But his grizzled vocals are no less compelling for that.
These latest two albums continue the experimentation with electronica and synths that first appeared on the 2012 Blues Funeral, while retaining the trademark dark bluesy vibes and oblique lyrics full of macabre gothic imagery and ruminations on sin, death, love and redemption. Business as usual in other words, but as long as his output remains this strong and consistent I’m not complaining. Now bring on the tour!
I would have preferred a full concert recording from the Push the Sky Away tour, but this loose and casual 10-song show performed for the KCRW station in Santa Monica is a great live offering. It’s predictably dominated by the Push the Sky Away material, and the rest of the picks match the quiet, meditative mood of that album, bar the closer Jack the Ripper, a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave of old. It wouldn’t be a Bad Seeds gig without The Mercy Seat, their signature showstopper performed here as a stripped-down piano version with all the white-knuckle tension and power of the original.
Like many people, I adored this band’s hushed minimalist debut, but then came the dreaded second-album dilemma: where to go next after you’ve already emerged as a fully formed deal with the sound, image and mood all perfected? More often than not it’s a course of diminishing returns, more of the same but not quite as good. Luckily, on this third album the xx seem to have figured out how to move on by embracing a wider range of influences, samples and vocal loops, and the end result sounds both fresh and unmistakably like the xx. There’s also a greater variety of mood; while it’s not necessarily a “happy” album some songs sound decidedly more optimistic and upbeat. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim may not be great singers in a conventional sense – neither of them has much depth or range – but they know their way around limitations and their vocal interplay still remains enchanting. A couple of songs in the middle of the album sticks closer to the blueprint of the debut, and while they’re fine the best tracks are the ones where the band push themselves.
I should have had this blog years ago, when I was buying up to five albums a week sometimes and my CD collection ballooned over 900. Since then, I cut down my collection by about a third, and got much more selective about my purchases. By a coincidence, the last two I got are both by Australian artists.